Forecasts suggest the UK will require around 80,000 tons of lithium a year by 2030, but almost 40 percent of that could come from under Cornwall.
The second great Cornish metals rush has begun.
Two-and-a-half decades after the closure of its last tin mine, the mineral-rich county could be on the verge of becoming a global player in the undersupplied metals market again.
This time, it’s not just tin which will be mined. As well as copper and tungsten, Cornwall is hoping to become Europe’s major provider of lithium, the metal used in batteries that power technology products from phones to electric cars.
By 2030, it is expected that Cornwall will be producing enough lithium to provide more than a third of the UK’s estimated requirement, just in time for the planned end of fossil-fuel vehicle production.
Five companies are leading the charge on the peninsular. One of them is Cornish Lithium, which by 2026 hopes to begin extracting around 10,000 tons of the metal each year.
“Back in the 19th century, miners started encountering very, very hot water coming into the mine,” says Cornish Lithium’s founder, Jeremy Wrathall. “It was salty and they didn’t know why because it was so far from the sea, right in the middle of Cornwall.
“They had it analysed by Professor William Miller of Kings’ College London in 1864, and he was the first to discover lithium in Cornwall. So, it’s been down there for a long time.”
Mr Wrathall, who gained more than 30 years of experience in the mining finance industry before launching his own exploration company, is confident that Cornish Lithium’s two sites in the county will play a major role in helping to make the UK a critical metals powerhouse.
“Every ton that we can produce in Cornwall is a ton less the UK has to import and a ton less associated carbon,” he said. “If[it’s coming in from China, that lithium is made with fossil fuels and you’re shipping it all the way over the ocean with fossil fuels.”
In total, the Government forecasts that the UK will require around 80,000 tons of lithium a year by 2030, but almost 40 per cent of that could be coming up from up to 2,000m under Cornwall.
British Lithium is hoping to produce 21,000 tonnes a year using sustainable, chemical-free, mining to produce its battery grade lithium carbonate from the mica in Cornish granite.
“We are delighted with the support we’re getting from local, national and international stakeholders and are feeling very positive about 2023 and all that lies ahead,” says British Lithium’s chief executive, Andrew Smith, who aims to begin production toward the end of 2025 at the company’s site at Stenalees, near St Austell.
While lithium production may be hitting the headlines, Cornwall is, once again, set to become a world player in tin.
The existence of tin in Britain can be traced back to 2000BC, but mining for the metal in Cornwall did not begin until around 1800BC. The county soon became an important producer of tin, which forms bronze when mixed with copper.
During the Industrial Revolution, the county established itself as a global player in the industry and remained so for much of the 20th century. It was not until 1998 that the final mine in Cornwall closed.
Cornish Tin is bringing mining back to the Great Wheal Vor for the first time in 150 years. The project involves 26 former tin and copper producing mines in Breage.
In 1929, the mining historian AK Hamilton Jenkin described the mines as “probably the richest tin mine which has ever been worked in the world”, and Cornish Tin’s chief executive, Sally Norcross-Webb, is planning to make the site globally significant once again.
“This is very high-grade tin with historic production grades of over 5.5 per cent tin,” she says. “Even assuming a current production grade of only 2 per cent tin this would be one of the top three tin mines by grade in the world today,” adding that the group is using “the best available technologies” as part of a commitment to green mining.
With tin used in the soldering of circuit boards in almost every tech product around, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US has predicted a fourfold increase in demand for the metal by 2040 as the electric vehicle and energy storage revolution really takes hold.
“We will be producing clean tin and provide a domestic supply for UK industry of a critical mineral,” Ms Norcross-Webb says.
“When we’re in full production we will employ between 150 and 200 people, and for every direct job in the mining sector there are four indirect jobs created,” she adds.
It is forecast that the mining industry will bring up to 10,000 new jobs into Cornwall where salaries are lower than the UK average and a high proportion of people work in the seasonal tourism industry.
Cornish mining bosses demand Government plays its part in critical metals revolution
Mining bosses have called on the Government to get behind the metals rush in Cornwall with a “solid plan” to ensure the entire UK benefits from the millions of tonnes of lithium and tin set to be produced in the county.
The companies behind the raft of mining projects have claimed they will be forced to export their production overseas unless the Government invests in electric vehicle gigafactories and other tech production.
Jeremy Wrathall, chief executive and founder of Cornish Lithium, told: “We have the lithium need for electric vehicle batteries right here in Cornwall. We have the resources to supply gigafactories in the UK. We just need the gigafactories to supply it to.”
President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act committed billions of dollars to the production and sourcing of critical metals to reduce the US’s reliance on imports from China. The EU has a critical mineral strategy and President Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen met earlier this month to agree a deal to co-ordinate their supply of vital metals.
“We will still produce the lithium and sell it to Europe if we’re unable to sell it here, but we want to play a big role in helping the UK reduce its reliance on imports. We need the Government to invest and help us the UK meet the challenge of climate change,” said Mr Wrathall.
Sally Norcross-Webb, chief executive of Cornish Tin, said: “We need real government support. Actions, not words, to facilitate the setting up of battery storage, vehicle manufacture, all the supply chain businesses that are needed to make Cornwall a real force for the future and a county that can actively participate in and make successful the next industrial revolution.” The Government was contacted for comment.
Dennis Rowland, the project manager at Cornwall Resources, said: “People can earn very well, much higher than the average salary. You hire local, train local and mining will bring a boost to Cornwall.”
Cornwall Resources operates the Redmoor tin-tungsten-copper project, based in Kelly Bray, close to the Devon border.
The company is currently seeking funding for a feasibility study for the project which will include further exploration drilling and studies, and culminate in an economic model justifying the establishment of a new, underground metal mine in Cornwall.
“The scoping study that we produced in 2020 showed there are globally significant levels of metal,” says Mr Rowland.
That last operating mine to close in Cornwall was in South Crofty near Redruth, but its demise did not last long.
Canadian-based Cornish Metals, one of the largest mining companies operating in the county, is hoping it can return to full production in 2026 and that the fourth-largest tin deposit in the world could produce up to 5,000 tonnes of the metal a year.
As well as a plentiful supply of tin, the site also offers potential for the mining of copper, lithium, tungsten, zinc and silver.
While there has been some local opposition to the various projects, the companies claim the overwhelming support of Cornish residents.
The county is well known for its great views but these businesses believe that what lies beneath its hills can provide a much-needed economic boost for locals too, iNews writes.